In the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic the lawyers do no criminal law. The clinic is privately funded through donations and some grants.
In Saskatchewan our provincial government funds a legal aid plan that provides legal assistance to the poor with regard to criminal matters and family law. The plan does not fund for representation in many of the areas of the Mountain clinic.
As a young lawyer I often handled legal aid cases. They were an opportunity to gain experience in court. In Saskatchewan they involved criminal law. When staff lawyers faced a conflict of interest with regard to a case or had too many files they could assign a case to a private lawyer. Members of my firm still do legal aid work. Because the payment schedule is low I now rarely handle a legal aid case.
Grisham evoked well the desperate situation of the poverty stricken with major legal problems. Without resources to hire a lawyer it is daunting to put forward a defence to a criminal charge or pursue a divorce. Legal Aid in Saskatchewan gives them a chance to be well represented.
Often it is hard for a lawyer doing legal aid as the lawyer can see their client has multiple problems. Solving the legal issue does not solve their life. It may be that there are American legal aid clinics, like Mountain, where lawyers also effectively function as social workers dealing with problems such as housing, employment and childcare. In Canada legal aid lawyers stay lawyers and would not venture into those other legal issues.
Grisham touched upon the challenges legal aid lawyers face in the daily influx of new cases or complications in ongoing cases. Probably because it would make the book too complex he did not truly delve into the daily life of a legal aid lawyer.
In Saskatchewan a legal aid lawyer would be glad to only have to deal with 1-3 new cases a day coming through the door. Here a legal aid lawyer at docket in Saskatchewan will have 6 or more new files to deal with each court day. They cannot give the extended time of the legal aid lawyers of Gray Mountain to every client.
The demands of constantly dealing with the influx of cases is far more stressful than in Gray Mountain. Sam feels the pressure of individual clients but is not really coping with the number of files real life Legal Aid lawyers must deal with in their offices.
Legal Aid lawyers I know empathsize with their clients but do not go beyond their professional boundaries to try to solve the crises of personal lives.
Grisham chose not to have Sam working on child protection cases. Among the most challenging of legal aid cases is the representation of parents from whom the government wants to take children. In Saskatchewan, the government where abuse and/or neglect is alleged, may seek with regard to children orders of supervision or a temporary committal to the government or permanent committal. I can recall many hours crafting arguments about what is the minimal acceptable level of parenting to keep children with their parents.
Grisham does express well the gratitude of many legal aid clients. They truly appreciate the efforts of their lawyer. Unlike business executives who can change lawyers on a whim legal aid clients are grateful to just have a lawyer. Often they have never had someone fight for them. They know but for their lawyer they would have no one to stand with them against the power of government.